Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has decreed that he and his offices are outside the reach of an anti-corruption watchdog group he created to clamp down on no-bid contracts that were perceived as avenues for corruption. Transparency International is denouncing Wade's decree as a major setback to what had been an impressive streak of reforms.
Senegal's Authority for Regulating Public Contract was created in 2007 with all the powers a public watchdog group might want. These included the power to audit foreign companies doing business with the government and the power to cancel shady contracts reached without competitive bidding.
When the agency canceled a contract, however, between an American company and a ministry led by President Abdoulaye Wade's son, the president balked. On Sunday, President Wade issued a formal order stating that the watchdog group lacks the power to interfere with contracts reached by the presidency.
Transparency International's Mouhamadou Mbodj responded that the decree undermines Mr. Wade's own legacy as an anti-corruption reformer. Mbodj said the creation of this watchdog group was the second most important reform for the government's way of doing business in Senegal's 50 years.
Mbodj cites the authority's statistics, which show the Senegalese government's once pervasive practice of awarding no-bid contracts to private companies has nearly died out. More than 70 percent of government deals in 2007 were reached without being properly vetted. Two years later, all but six percent of government deals were open to the public.
Mbodj said creation of the agency was one of Wade's biggest achievements during his 10 years in office. Therefore, Mbodj said that Wade should support the agency to defend his own political legacy.
Mr. Wade's decree stems from a controversial contract between Senegal's telecommunications agency and an American company, Global Voice. Senegal's telecom agency hired Global Voice to monitor the number of minutes of international calls received by Senegal's mobile phone users so the national telecom agency can raise taxes on cell phones.
The Public Contracts watchdog group canceled that contract after ruling that Global Voice never had to compete with other companies to win the contract. Mbodj said Wade's decision to declare the presidency exempt from such rulings likely will strike a blow to Senegal's reputation among aid donors.
Mbodj said the reforms offer a way to assure aid-giving nations they can invest their taxpayer's money in Senegal, knowing the money will be used effectively and transparently.
The Public Contracts watchdog group is an autonomous institution with the authority to regulate public contracts. It is separate from Senegal's executive branch, and like many anti-corruption organizations in West Africa, Mbodj said it relies on political wrangling for funding.
Mbodj said Transparency International believes that if it has to defend itself solely on the government's budget, it cannot enforce its mission.
Senegal dropped by 14 places - from 85th to 99th - out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2009 corruption index. It will fall further, Mbodj said, if the executive branch does not cede some of its power to other institutions in the capital.